The Grammarphobia Blog

Is her dad sketchy?

Q: My sisters use the word “sketchy” in odd ways: “That was a very sketchy thing to do” or “Dad is very sketchy.” I had previously heard the word used only as a synonym for incomplete: “We have a sketchy description of the murder.” Are my sisters using the word correctly?

A: The adjective “sketchy” originally referred to something that was outlined only slightly and with no details filled in, a meaning the Oxford English Dictionary traces back to 1805.

Another meaning (imperfect or superficial or flimsy or lacking in substance) evolved later, and the OED has citations for this dating from 1878. One of the quotations is from a letter written by E.B. White in 1943: “I am hoping that my health (which has been rather sketchy lately) will improve.”

It sounds as though your sisters’ usage is something like White’s, with a more pronounced negative meaning. Perhaps they’re using the word in a way that I’ve noticed in the last few years: something like shallow or one-dimensional.

This progression seems reasonable to me: 200 years ago, “sketchy” described a simple line drawing with no detail or depth, and today it can also describe something that’s shallow or skin-deep. I’ve also heard it used lately to mean questionable, iffy, or off-color. Thus does language change!

By the way, the adjective “sketchy” originally referred to something that resembled a rough drawing or “sketch,” a noun that first appeared in print in the late 17th century, according to the OED. The noun came to mean a short play or performance in the late 18th century.

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